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Practice of Forgiveness

On being fully alive - through our pain and difficulty.

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Jun 09, 2001
Location: Headlands Institute
In topic: General Topics in Buddhism
The practice of fully feeling our pain allows us to see through it. We are then led to forgiving ourselves and becoming more aware of the different realities residing within conflict
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Practice of Forgiveness

In being fully alive - through our pain and difficulty.

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | June 9, 2001


Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum


One of my practices, which I would recommend highly, is watching morning television.  It's very educational.  It really is.  The other day, an expert came on, who had figured out a really good method for achieving happiness.  You would write in a journal for twenty minutes a day.  Not randomly, though.  There were several areas of personal concern that you were supposed to write about in a systematic way. The categories were the physical - including your diet and exercise, emotional, relationships, and spirituality.  You were supposed to write for five minutes on each of these four areas.  What impressed me was that under spirituality, you were supposed to write about forgiveness.  Every single day you would write in your journal about your efforts to forgive yourself for what you had done that was harmful, or to forgive somebody else for what they had done to you that was harmful.  


So I thought about this afterward.  It seemed really startling to me, the idea that there would be so much hurting going on in the world.  That every day - because there was that much hurting going on in the world - every person would have to spend time forgiving themselves and others.  I had never really thought about it quite in that way before.  But as soon as I thought about it, I said, "Of course, that is really right.  People hurting themselves.  People hurting each other with all kinds of abuse and disrespect.  Diminishment of all sorts."  The kind of hurting that you read about in the newspaper - the violence, the anger, the hatred; but also the more subtle, everyday kind of hurting.  Hurting that comes just from failing to love enough.  Failing, little by little, day by day.  No one notices.  And yet, it really is a powerful, negative force in our lives.


I thought the expert had a really good idea.  It really made a lot of sense.  If you are going to take care of yourself - take your vitamins and follow a good diet and all that, it would really make sense to have a daily hygiene of forgiving.  Forgiving seems to be a really necessary practice. 


But how do you forgive?  Well, it is not that easy.  Why is it so hard?  It's hard because it is literally painful, and nobody wants to feel pain.  It is a natural, human response to run away from pain.  So when pain is there, before you even have a chance to feel it, you are already fleeing in the other direction, covering it over with distraction.  And distraction takes various forms: denial, blaming somebody else, or just oblivion.  Somehow wiping it out.  Forgetting it somehow.  As I often say, we live in a society that is masterful at all of this.  Our society is literally organized to promote this kind of distraction and oblivion. 


Of course, as far as blame is concerned, we don't need any help for that!  We automatically blame people.  So if you have ever hurt yourself, and I think that we often do, and if you have ever hurt anyone else, which we often do (knowingly or unknowingly), there is pain.  And if somebody has hurt you, then obviously there is a lot of pain. 


If you are going to follow this woman's advice and practice forgiveness, the first thing you have to do is to allow yourself to feel acutely the pain of that hurting.  This requires work, since most of the time, I think, that pain in its fullness does not exist within the frame of our awareness.  You need to allow it, to evoke it, to bring it up, to bring it forth, and to let it blossom into your heart.  It is very rare that we are willing to sit still for that.  But we have to, if we are ever to forgive. 


This is one reason why meditation practice is not always peaceful.  If you practice meditation with a sense of really being present and open and aware to what comes, sometimes that is what comes.  Pain.  Difficulty.  But actual meditation practice itself, if you follow it closely and are honest with yourself, will naturally lead you down the path of forgiveness. 


So that is the first part.  To forgive, you really need to allow yourself to feel the fullness of the pain. 


The next thing you have to do is go to the root of the pain, beyond the story that comes associated with it, and beyond the dismay that you feel.  You really have to go to the root of it.  The root of pain, I feel, is really always the same.  The root of pain is existence itself.  Because you are, there is this pain.  If you really are going to forgive, you have to feel the pain of the hurt all the way to its core, and see right through it.  Yes, it is true.  You have been hurt.  Maybe it is also true that someone has done something to you.  But if you weren't, that would not have happened.  If you didn't have a mind, a body, an identity, that wouldn't happen.  But since you do, it is guaranteed that you will be hurt.  When the conditions of hurt come together, as they will, you will be hurt. 


The one who hurt you, the story, and the history of that hurting, are ultimately incidental to the sheer fact of hurt being built into the condition of life.  So if you can get to that level of experiencing your hurt, or having hurt another (because in the end being hurt and having hurt another amount to the same thing). if you can allow yourself to feel the pain to that level, then it is easy to forgive.  It is a natural thing.  The heart just opens to forgiveness, because you see that we are all in this together. 


So I agree with the woman that forgiving oneself, and forgiving anyone else who has hurt you, are necessary for spiritual and emotional health.  I am not quite as confident as she is that twenty minutes a day of journaling will do the trick; but I am willing to believe that it is possible.  You never know!  But whether or not it seems true, it really seems right that forgiveness has to be a daily, regular practice.   It has to be a path that you walk down, probably for your whole life. 


For me, the hardest thing of all is forgiving yourself for being yourself.  I think that on some very deep level, this is the hardest thing.  I think that we all are slightly annoyed with ourselves for being ourselves.  I have always considered it to be the pinnacle of spiritual life just to allow yourself to be yourself, as you are.  They always talk about this in Zen.  They talk about it as the supreme and indelible mark of awakening: That you simply are yourself.  It sounds crazy.  "Of course I am myself!"  What they mean, though, is totally accepting that you are the way you are.  Forgiving yourself for it, all the way to the bottom.  Short of this, we are always a little bit embarrassed about who we are, thinking, "I should be better.  Why is it this way?"


So it is hard to forgive yourself.  Very hard.  And it is also very hard to forgive somebody else.  To forgive another person is actually an internal act of your own.  It is something that you do, not necessarily for the other person, but for yourself.  Because your forgiving someone cannot absolve that person of responsibility.  You cannot take away their responsibility, because nobody can ever escape the consequences of their actions.  So although we forgive them, our forgiveness doesn't get them off the hook.  It is a mistake to think that somehow we have gotten them off the hook by our forgiveness.   Only they themselves can do that.  So forgiveness is for us - for the openness of our own hearts, and for the possibility that we could actually learn how to love.  I think we need forgiveness before we can love. 


Some of you know that Kathie's brother, my brother-in-law, has been ill in the hospital, so I have been spending a lot of time with my mother and father-in-law.  We were talking in the hospital the other day.  It had been the day after this horrible bombing in Israel, in the disco in Tel Aviv.  My mother and father-in-law were baffled by this.  They could not understand what is going on there.  How could two peoples - yes, they are different and have different world views - fail so miserably to appreciate each other?  How could they go on for so long, persisting in hating one another, with such disastrous consequences?  How could people hate each other just because of their cultural and religious differences?  It makes no sense. 


Well, the fact is that it does make sense.  People have very good reasons for hating one another: They hate one another because they are afraid of one another.  And since fear is such a disempowering and unacceptable emotion on a visceral level, we can't really allow ourselves to feel fear.  It's too much.  So we distract ourselves from it with hatred.  Why do they fear each other?  They fear each other because they feel on a gut level - not just because they made this up, but because they have past experience to base it on - that the other person, the other peoples, are a threat to their very existence.  A direct threat to their whole sense of identity.  The truth of the matter is that most of us in the world, including most of us Buddhists, base our life on identity.  If your senses of the world, if your beliefs, seem not only different from mine, but seem somehow to absolutely deny the reality of mine, then I am terrified to my very bones.  Then I feel that there is no choice.  I have to hate you out of self-defense, because your existence threatens mine. 


That is how hatred works on this kind of level.  Nobody thinks of it like that, really.  They think it is about land, or this or that.  They see it manifest every day in external events.  "Members of your group have killed my family members, have killed my brothers and sisters. have killed my countrymen - people that I know and lived with.  They have been killed by your people, and their property was taken away; their language was taken away; their rights were taken away. How could I be myself if I could forgive or accept that?  How could I face myself in the morning?  It would be like denying my own existence if I were to accept that.  How could I face my relatives if I were to forgive you for having killed them?  How could I deal with my own self-loathing for having betrayed my family?"  That is how hatred is created. 


Nightmare situations happen in cultures.   I saw this in Israel.  Jews and Palestinians can't talk to one another, because they don't even share a basic understanding about what is going on.  There is no narrative or historical basis for having a conversation.  They even call the same places by different names, and refuse to acknowledge that the other name exists.  If you ask where such-and-such a street is, somebody will say, "Never heard of it."  Not because they don't know it by that name, but because they refuse to acknowledge that other people do know it as that name. 


It is not that they feel that they are living in different worlds.  They both think that there is only one reality, but that the other one's view is distorted.  They all think that their attitudes are based on sound, historical events, but if you talk to them about the history and the events, their stories are different.  It seems as if there are no facts at all about the past - only faith-based myths disguised as history.  So there is no way to talk about it, because they can't even say what happened.  There is no way to get to the peace table and agree: "This is what happened.  This is where we want to go.  This is what we need to do." 


Again, my point here is that the root of all this sorrow and pain and suffering is identity and fear - the tremendous fear that we all have of loss of identity. 


I think that we have to respect identity and fear as powerful motivators in our lives.  I think we can't kid ourselves about that.  Probably, if we could only realize and respect how powerful those factors are in motivating us, that in itself would be a major political breakthrough.  Just to realize that would be a huge advance, I think, because this is what motivates all of us in our social contacts and our relationships. 


We always need to know how to negotiate and have some realistic, hard-nosed ability to make trade-offs; but I am convinced that real reconciliation, real change of heart, is possible and necessary, not only for individuals, but for whole societies.  It begins with internal, spiritual work that we do on our cushions and in our lives.  And it continues, when we get up from our cushions, with how we meet each other - with the heart of forgiveness, the heart of reconciliation.


Internal work.  But not just internal.  I think of some lines from the poet Robert Creeley: 


            Inside and outside.




I always think of those lines.  They cheer me up.